Paris, November 20, 2022 – In a column published today on the website of the Monde.fr – On the occasion of the International Day of the Rights of the Child – Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography, Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market and Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF, highlight the importance of developing concrete strategies for online child protection , digital empowerment and digital inclusion to provide every child with a safe and trusted digital space.
33 years ago today, world leaders came together to adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – recognizing worldwide that children’s rights are children’s rights and that they deserve equal protection.
The visionary leaders who drafted the convention in 1989 could not have imagined how much digital technology and the Internet would transform childhood. Still, they have laid a foundation that can help us navigate an increasingly digital world.
Around the world, children are connecting earlier and staying connected longer. Between 2010 and 2020, children’s online time almost doubled in many countries. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp increase in screen time among children, with young Europeans estimated to be online between 6 and 7.5 hours a day. Recent research shows that the majority of kids with smartphones say they use them “almost always” to connect, especially with social media.
The benefits of this sweeping shift are clear: it expands access to education, entertainment and digital opportunities. But the risks are also greater.
Children exposed to embedded and invisible technologies
One in three children worldwide report being bullied online. In 2020, 33% of girls and 20% of boys in Europe reported encountering disturbing content online at least once a month. In parts of Africa and Asia, recent research shows that between 1 and 20% of children between 2020 and 2021 experienced at least one incident of online sexual exploitation or abuse.
Children are also increasingly exposed to embedded and invisible technologies such as algorithms, predictive analytics systems, and even location trackers, which can be a violation of their right to privacy, and worse.
Surprisingly, despite the ubiquity of digital technology, millions of children still do not have access to the benefits of the Internet. In an increasingly digital economy, the consequences of this gap will also widen if we do not act now.
Improved access to digital learning
Whoever it is and where it comes from, every child has the same right to safety and inclusion. And all children should be able to thrive in a digital environment where these rights are respected and protected. This is a key element of the European Commission’s proposal for a declaration on European digital rights and principles, presented earlier this year.
The recent adoption by the EU of the legislative package on digital services is also an important step in this regard. Requiring digital platforms to apply strict criteria to protect minors online and banning advertising and potentially harmful algorithmic content aimed at children will help create a safer digital space.
The new strategy for a more child-friendly internet, the digital arm of the EU strategy on the rights of the child, will also help ensure that every child in Europe is protected, empowered and respected when they are online. As part of this strategy, the European Commission will start developing a code of conduct for the age-appropriate development of digital products and services and will involve children in the development process. It will also promote effective age verification tools and help countries share best practices on media literacy.
Protecting children online and improving their access to digital learning and other opportunities is also at the heart of UNICEF’s work around the world, from working with governments to develop policies and legal frameworks like those of the EU, to supporting Ministries of Education in promoting children’s digital literacy and online safety skills, or to work hand-in-hand with industry leaders to find innovative solutions that keep children safe online.
Teaching empowerment to all children and parents
Through programs like Global Kids Online and projects like Disrupting Harm, UNICEF is also helping to build the evidence base on children’s digital rights to understand how society’s digital transformation is affecting children’s lives and well-being.
UNICEF also works with government and technology industry partners to ensure every child has access to digital learning. Giga leverages UNICEF’s experience in education and procurement, the regulatory and policy expertise of the ITU, and the ability of the private sector to rapidly apply technology solutions to connect every school in the world to the internet. And the digital learning platform The Learning Passport, launched in 2018 to reach displaced children, is now used by more than 2 million children in 17 countries.
Everyone has a role to play in this. That’s why politicians, industry leaders, educators, parents, children and young people met in Brussels at the end of October at the Safer Internet Forum to discuss how we can improve the Internet for children.
For a secure and reliable digital space
Empowerment is essential. We need to teach children – as well as parents, educators and teachers – to recognize online risks, separate fact from fiction and make the most of digital opportunities. Safer Internet Centers across Europe contribute to this, particularly by providing a platform for young people to voice their concerns and views. And every country should consider setting up similar digital support networks.
Online protection, digital empowerment and digital inclusion are global challenges. By joining forces, we can address these issues more effectively and efficiently. Our goal must be nothing less than a safe and trusted digital space that will be a cornerstone of our digital society, for every child and for everyone, everywhere.
- Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography
- Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market
- Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF